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Language change is sneaky

Linguists have apparently long noticed that languages have a “sneaky” approach to change, and this has been confirmed in recent research.

The study, called “The course of actualization” has been authored by Hendrik De Smet of the University of Leuven /Research Foundation Flanders. It looks into how language changes “actualize”, or become more common, and shows that changes start off small, build on other changes, making small adjustments each time.

Consider the development of so-called downtoners — grammatical elements that minimize the force of the word they accompany. Nineteenth-century English saw the emergence of a new downtoner, all but, meaning ‘almost’. All but started out being used only with adjectives, as in her escape was all but miraculous. But later it also began to turn up with verbs, as in until his clothes all but dropped from him. In grammatical terms, that is a fairly big leap, but when looked at closely the leap is found to go in smaller steps. Before all but spread to verbs, it appeared with past participles, which very much resemble both adjectives and verbs, as in her breath was all but gone. So, changes can sneak into a language and spread from context to context by exploiting the similarities between contexts. (Source: Science Daily)

The research is to be printed in the journal Language, in the September 2012 issue.